Volume > Issue > Briefly: June 2014

June 2014

Papist Patriots: The Making of an American Catholic Identity

By Maura Jane Farrelly

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 324

Price: $35

Review Author: Christopher Beiting

If you were to ask most people about the origins of Catholicism in America, chances are they would say that it is something urban, northern, and Irish. And they would be right, but only to a degree. This image of American Catholicism is really a 19th-century phenomenon, and Catholicism in America is a lot older. Papist Patriots delves into neglected elements of its origins and character. Maura Jane Farrelly examines the question of whether there is a tension in the character of American Catholics between their Catholicism (communal and hierarchical in focus) and their Americanism (individualistic and democratic in focus). John Courtney Murray, S.J., famously denied that there was any such tension, claiming that, for American Catholics, American individualism was tempered by Catholic communalism and the natural-law tradition. Not all thinkers, before or since, have been as sanguine on the matter as Murray was, and most have been far more willing to focus on the tensions and complexities within the American Catholic character. Farrelly falls into this camp insofar as it is, to her, the only way to resolve a particular historical conundrum: What caused Catholics in the colony of Maryland to support the American War of Independence in far greater numbers than their Protestant neighbors, particularly given the opposition to the war on the part of European Catholics? The answer is a complex and interesting one, and reveals a great deal, not just about 18th-century Maryland Catholics in particular, but also about American Catholicism in general.

Farrelly looks further back in time than the 18th century and reminds readers that the earliest sustained Catholic presence in the first American colonies was not Irish, or even French or Spanish, but English, and that we have overlooked the English origins of American Catholicism to our detriment. What was so special about English Catholicism? The most significant feature was that, unlike French or Spanish Catholicism, English Catholicism was a minority faith, persecuted and viewed as treasonous by many Englishmen. Paradoxically, however, Catholics in England, though a minority, were not a poor and suffering minority. Rather, they were disproportionately wealthy and powerful — wealthy enough to pay the Crown’s anti-Catholic fines or powerful enough to ignore its anti-Catholic laws. Many English Catholics were also rather well educated, for, while English universities were off limits to Catholics, during the reign of Charles I it became somewhat fashionable to convert to Catholicism, and a number of prominent, well-heeled Oxford and Cambridge graduates did so.

This was the background of the famous Calvert family, the aristocratic clan responsible for founding the colony of Maryland in 1634. George, the First Lord Baltimore, and his son Cecilius, the Second Lord Baltimore, were Catholic gentry interested in founding a colony in North America that would in part serve as a place of refuge for persecuted English Catholics. While it is tempting to view the Calverts as early champions of religious liberty, it would be a mistake to do so since their motives (and policies) were much more suspect — they were interested in founding a colony that would make them money first and foremost, and they realized that there were not sufficient numbers of interested English Catholics to support a functioning Catholics-only colony. Compromises would have to be made, and the Maryland colony had to have a large Protestant population as well. The Calverts figured that the way to keep everybody happy and avert religious tensions was to refuse to have an established church in Maryland, and to pack the colony leadership with Catholics via nepotism and cronyism — the first governor of the colony, for example, was Leonard Calvert, Cecilius’s younger brother. A 1648 uprising by disgruntled Protestants proved that policy a failure; eventually a legal code not only established official religious toleration but even provided an enumerated list of terms classified as religious slurs, the use of which was punishable by law. This led to an uneasy religious truce that lasted until the end of the century, when the after-effects of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 began to spill over into the colonies. The anti-Catholic actions against James II were not confined to England, and in 1692 Maryland’s charter was revoked and the anti-Catholic penal laws of England applied to the colony.

It was this suppression of Catholic liberties in Maryland, and Catholics’ reactions to it over the next century, that provides an explanation for the unusually large support of the American Revolution among Maryland Catholics, as well as for some of the character of American Catholicism. Maryland Catholics did not simply go away, despite the actions taken against them. Rather, the Maryland Catholic community stubbornly resisted assimilation or conversion to Protestantism, in part due to a particular way of looking at their history. Maryland Catholics came to regard themselves (truthfully) as an oppressed minority, but one which looked back to a somewhat selectively remembered and slightly fictitious past. To them, the 17th century was a golden age of religious freedom, one which was destroyed by the actions of a tyrannical Parliament — a Parliament that had to suppress American laws and the American Constitution to do so. This myth, and its promulgation, was a significant factor in the survival of Catholicism, and helps explain why Maryland Catholics supported the Revolution in such large numbers. Complaints about a tyrannical Crown and Parliament that stripped them of their natural rights and locally established laws was part and parcel of who they were. When the Sons of Liberty began making similar arguments toward the end of the century, they were well received by Maryland Catholics. After all, they had been saying the same thing for decades. The Revolutionaries must have seemed like Johnny-come-latelies by comparison.

There is a great deal more to Papist Patriots than can be covered in a review (though the rude awakening experienced by many European Catholic clergy upon coming to the Maryland colony, and being forced by harsh realities to leave their clerical privileges on the other side of the Atlantic and make all manner of compromises, is worth mentioning). On the whole, Papist Patriots is unusually well written — Farrelly has a background in journalism and teaches the subject at Brandeis University, so her prose is lively and learned without being pedantic or dull. More significantly, Papist Patriots challenges the reader to re-think the popular conception of Catholicism in America. In our consideration of its Irish (or Spanish or French) origins, we must not overlook its English origins. While acknowledging the role of the urbanized North, we must not forget that the first home of American Catholicism was actually the aristocratic South (which is where Farrelly classes the Maryland colony, since in the 18th century the Chesapeake region had the second-largest slave population in the British empire). Papist Patriots is excellent, although it scarcely covers the thorny issue of slavery and doesn’t really deal with the other colonial Catholic communities in Pennsylvania and what would later be Kentucky. Perhaps these will be subjects for Farrelly’s future contributions to a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith in this nation.

Do No Harm: A Novel

By Fiorella De Maria

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 233

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

A London emergency-room physician saves the life of a young woman who attempted suicide, but his actions defy the directives of her living will per the U.K.’s “End of Life Care Act.” A member of the patient’s family reports Dr. Matthew Kemble to the police, and the resulting publicity causes a violent uproar against him. This contemporary scenario kicks off the intertwined dramas in Fiorella De Maria’s new novel, one concerning the advance directives that are designed to dictate the actions (or inactions) of survivors in life-and-death situations, and the other addressing the ongoing slaughter of innocents via abortion.

Dr. Kemble finds himself the target of a political cause célèbre and laments the insidious power of the media in general, especially television’s medical dramas, which have “turned a generation of Brits into a nation of hypochondriacs.” When Kemble is handed the would-be suicide’s advance directive, he has never before been faced with such paperwork. Even though “medicine held very few surprises for a man his age…this was repugnantly, terrifyingly different.” He acts immediately to save Daisy Havisham’s life, thereby plunging himself into a legal hellhole.

The tale grows several sets of legs when the author introduces the other sanctity-of-life battle. Maria, a plucky young legal assistant, works to stop a deportation in the “brutal and faceless” British immigration system. Her client, Lydia, a pregnant 19-year-old from China, languishes in a nasty detention center. The terrifying prospect of a forced abortion awaits Lydia in China. She has resided in Britain for three years; her missing British boyfriend is apparently not the marrying kind. The plan is to gain asylum for Lydia, but a foolish argument with an immigration official leads to Maria’s own miserable night in jail. Her boss, Jonathan Kirkpatrick, who is also defending Kemble, comes to her rescue.

Kirkpatrick now has his test case in defiance of the End of Life Care Act, believing that “the Crown Prosecution Service would be hard pushed to claim that putting a doctor on trial for treating somebody would be in the public interest.” However, Catholic Bishop Luke McEvoy, firmly on the living-will bandwagon, is an enthusiastic mouthpiece for the movement’s politically correct position, although he has yet to obtain such a document for himself. He slanders opponents as “emotional lunatics” with “nasty little campaigns.” When Maria confronts the bishop about the wisdom of making decisions for hypothetical future situations, he huffily moves on.

Expertly crafted scenes deliver a spectrum of desperate situations in stark, eloquent prose. Kemble is arrested for assault and battery for having saved Daisy. The media spectacle is well underway as the doctor pleads emergency necessity — no time to study paperwork or seek legal advice. Kemble also raises the possibility of changed circumstances after the document was executed. The Kemble home is attacked by thugs, and urban culture is portrayed through crude street spectacles common within London’s concrete jungle. Meanwhile, Lydia’s asylum application is denied, her prospects are dim, her deportation becomes imminent, her despair deepens, and her dark fate awaits.

Maria’s effervescent personality is superbly constructed, offering a lively contrast to the more methodical, practical Kemble and Kirkpatrick. She tours the historic Havisham manor, which has been in the would-be suicide’s family for over 500 years and was “acquired after the dissolution of the monasteries,” meaning “pinched from the Catholic Church.” Her mission is to gain information for Kemble’s defense. The Havishams had been Nazi sympathizers in the 1930s, and after a sneaky sortie into the family’s private quarters, Maria learns of their involvement in the eugenics movement before World War II. The Havishams also supported a euthanasia organization. Maria’s somewhat reckless style of sleuthing also uncovers evidence that Daisy’s death would have had huge financial implications for another family member. Readers come to understand that Daisy and her family have, in common parlance, issues as well as baggage.

De Maria offers a riveting narrative concerning the composition of Kemble’s jury, including a bit of 1970s déjà vu: Some jurors appear to be “anarchic middle-class kids with guilt complexes and red Che Guevara T-shirts.” While most jurors “swore on the Bible, one old dear in a tie-dye skirt made a promise holding what looked like a sprig of parsley and two young men made an atheist affirmation.” The prosecution uses Kemble’s pro-life articles and letters against him, and the defense responds with expert-witness testimony challenging the validity of living wills made by depressed or mentally ill persons. Kemble testifies that most of those attempting suicide “do not have a fixed wish to die and are relieved when they’re saved.” Secrets embedded in the dismal junk culture embraced by Daisy and her roommates come to light as the trial is besieged by throngs of violent, anti-life demonstrators. De Maria delivers detailed strands of both the prosecution and defense teams’ evidence before a verdict is finally reached.

This chilling account of contemporary Britain’s caustic urban society is spot-on. Britons have battled nihilistic darkness for almost two millennia, from the Roman empire’s occupation through the 20th century’s two world wars. They gave the world the Magna Carta and untold numbers of saints, philosophers, and princes of the Church, but De Maria’s doleful story of contemporary Britain, once a great seat of Western civilization, leads readers to wonder: Is Britain no longer part of Christendom? Is it now a post-Christian nation? Say it isn’t so!

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